Gutenberg Bible Is Sold for Record $4.9 Million

Times Staff Writers

A Gutenberg Bible sold in rapid-fire, tense bidding at auction Thursday night for $4.9 million, the highest price ever paid for a book.

In total, the price was $5.39 million, counting the 10% commission that Christie’s, the auctioneers, received from the buyer, Maruzen Co. Ltd., one of Japan’s biggest booksellers.

To enhance the value of the brown calfskin-covered Bible, printed in 1455, Christie’s had displayed it last month in Japan. The Bible was the centerpiece of the auction by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which is disposing of the Estelle Doheny Collection to raise funds for the training of priests.


“I am pleased to offer Lot 1, the Gutenberg Bible,” announced Christopher Burge, president of Christie’s, New York, opening the bidding for the night. A wave of anticipation swept through the room. Throughout the world, only 48 Gutenberg Bibles, the first books printed by movable type, survive.

Burge started the bidding at $700,000. Within seconds it had climbed to $1 million, then jumped to $1.3 million with a bid phoned in to the auction room.

As bids rose further, a duel developed between Maruzen and Thomas E. Schuster, a London dealer in rare old books. Maruzen officials called in their bids on the phone while Schuster stood in shirt sleeves near the podium of the Park Avenue auction house.

The bids broke the $4-million barrier half a dozen bids later. At $4.7 million, Schuster looked resigned and he made his last bid at $4.8 million.

Burge then announced: “$4.9 million, on the phone.”

And when that bid could not be topped, the Gutenberg Bible, in a glass case in the room, was sold.

“You don’t know if you will ever find another one,” Schuster said sadly. Asked if he was “terribly disappointed,” Schuster replied, “Yes.”


He said he had entered bids in conjunction with Burgess Browning, another British bookseller. “Perhaps the people on the phone had unlimited money,” he said.

In Tokyo, a Maruzen spokesman said the company, as a firm that imports large numbers of foreign books and magazines, has long been looking for an opportunity to buy a historic book. Shuji Tomita, the spokesman, said the Gutenberg Bible would be displayed at Maruzen’s main store in the Nihombashi section of Tokyo.

Tomita said Japanese interest in the Gutenberg Bible was focused on its historic significance, rather than in its religious nature. Fewer than 1% of Japan’s population is Christian.

The sale was described here as the most important sale of 15th-Century books in the United States in the last 76 years. The total of the 136 items auctioned Thursday will bring the Los Angeles Archdiocese $12.4 million.

“I’ve never been to an auction like this before,” said Msgr. Francis Weber, the archdiocesan archivist and personal liaison for Archbishop Roger Mahony on the Doheny sale. “You could feel electricity in the air.”

He said the Archdiocese will retain a few small portions of the Doheny Collection.

In a time of mammoth stock market turmoil, intense interest centered on the bidding for the Gutenberg Bible with its leafy border incorporating buds, flowers and a bird. Appraisers regarded this Gutenberg as a “superb” copy of Volume I of the Bible--Genesis to Psalms.

Johann Gutenberg published the first of the Bibles that carry his name in 1449 or 1450. Of the 48 copies known to be in existence today, only 21 are complete volumes. The sole remaining Gutenberg Bible in California is in the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino.

In April, 1977, the General Theological Seminary in New York sold its Gutenberg at Christie’s for $2.2 million, a record for a book at that time. The purchaser was the Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart.

Carrie Estelle Doheny donated her collection to St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., in 1940, stipulating that it not be sold until 25 years after her own death, which occurred in 1958. The widow of Edward Lawrence Doheny, a prominent oil man who died in 1935, Mrs. Doheny’s acquisition of books and other antiques, including illiminated manuscripts, is regarded as one of America’s major collections.

She regarded the Gutenberg Bible that she bought in October, 1950, for $70,000 as the crown jewel of her collection. Several times, Mrs. Doheny had sought Gutenbergs, only to be disappointed. On March 11, 1947, she lost in bidding at Christie’s for one of the works.

The sale Thursday of books printed before 1500 also included a copy on vellum of St. Jerome’s “Epistolare,” printed in 1470, probably illuminated by one of the great Dutch artists of the period, the Housebook Master. The book was purchased for $16,500 by Doheny in 1949. It sold Thursday for $950,000 to Quaritch, London book dealers.

Another rare book, “Biblia Pauperum: Blockbook,” printed in the Netherlands between 1460 and 1470 sold for $2.42 million. The only copy in the United States, it shows a series of scenes of Christ’s life, accompanied by Old Testament text and portraits of the prophets. It was also purchased by Quaritch.

$20 Million Expected

Six more sales of Doheny Collection items are scheduled, which are expected to bring in excess of $20 million for the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Two sales in February, 1988, will be held at Camarillo, and will include items of Western Americana, literature, fine printing, manuscripts, furniture, paintings, prints, paperweights, decorative objects, jewelry, parasols, lace and fans. The last sale from the Doheny collection is scheduled for May 19, 1989.

More than 40 medieval and Renaissance-illuminated manuscripts will be sold at Christie’s in London on Dec. 2. Later sales--one of them at Camarillo--will offer manuscripts by Button Gwinnett, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, estimated to be worth more than $100,000, and by Edgar Allan Poe, estimated to be worth between $8,000-$10,000.

The collection also includes autographed letters of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence and manuscript material by Mark Twain, as well as many early and unusual Bibles. One such book is the “Biblia Latina,” the first dated Bible, which was printed in Mainz, Germany, in 1462. That book is the first to be divided into two volumes. Historians consider it second only to the Gutenberg in importance. The Doheny collection also includes a copy of the first King James Bible, printed in 1611, as well as a Douay Bible from 1609 and the New Testament of a 1582 Rheims Bible.

In 1986, Archbishop Mahony asked Gerald Lynch, a consultant with Colt Industries Inc. in Burbank to chair a committee to decide whether the collection should be sold and by whom. The nation’s largest auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, competed for the prize of sponsoring of the sale. In February, 1987, Mahony signed a contract with Christie’s.

The auction Thursday was not without controversy. Several California scholars and collectors argued that Doheny’s “treasure” should not be broken up or that local institutions were not given the chance to acquire at a fair price books and manuscripts that particularly fit into their collections.

But the archdiocese said that to further its mission, sale was necessary and the highest possible price should be sought.

With the funds from the auction, the archdiocese will set up a foundation to subsidize the recruitment and training of priests. The archdiocese’s total of 1,400 priests is 300 to 400 fewer than the number needed. Seminary training, the first step on the path to ordination in the priesthood, requires eight years of study beyond high school.

Times staff writer Sam Jameson in Tokyo also contributed to this story.